Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Researchers Find Internet Isn't As Scary As It's Made Out To Be

University of New Hampshire researchers have published a study in American Psychologist, debunking many of the common myths about internet predators. I picked up the story from Jacob Sullum at Reason, who links to the full story put out by McClatchy Newspapers. Here are some of the myths and the findings:

Myth: Internet predators are driving up child sex crime rates.

Finding: Sex assaults on teens fell 52 percent from 1993 to 2005, according to the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey, the best measure of U.S. crime trends. "The Internet may not be as risky as a lot of other things that parents do without concern, such as driving kids to the mall and leaving them there for two hours," [sociologist Janis] Wolak said.

Myth: Internet predators are pedophiles.

Finding: Internet predators don't hit on the prepubescent children whom pedophiles target. They target adolescents, who have more access to computers, more privacy and more interest in sex and romance, Wolak's team determined from interviews with investigators.

Myth: Internet predators represent a new dimension of child sexual abuse.

Finding: The means of communication is new, according to Wolak, but most Internet-linked offenses are essentially statutory rape: nonforcible sex crimes against minors too young to consent to sexual relationships with adults.

Myth: Internet predators trick or abduct their victims.

Finding: Most victims meet online offenders face-to-face and go to those meetings expecting to engage in sex. Nearly three-quarters have sex with partners they met on the Internet more than once.

Myth: Internet predators meet their victims by posing online as other teens.

Finding: Only 5 percent of predators did that, according to the survey of investigators.

Myth: Online interactions with strangers are risky.

Finding: Many teens interact online all the time with people they don't know. What's risky, according to Wolak, is giving out names, phone numbers and pictures to strangers and talking online with them about sex.

Myth: Internet predators go after any child.

Finding: Usually their targets are adolescent girls or adolescent boys of uncertain sexual orientation, according to Wolak. Youths with histories of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns and patterns of off- and online risk-taking are especially at risk.

The last finding is the most telling. For myself, it's always been fairly obvious, but kids at the greatest risk on the internet are the kids who are the greatest risk off the internet. It's sort of like I've always said- rather than spending so much time worrying about what good, well-adjusted kids are doing on the internet, why don't the worrywarts turn their focus specifically to kids who are already at-risk and what they are doing both on and off the internet. Blaming the internet has become a easy way for politicians and do-gooders to make it seem like their actually doing something, but as the study shows, there is no internet problem. People never like to here that the answer to kids getting into trouble is parenting, but it sure as hell seems like the most effective strategy to me.


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